The Golden Age of Mary Co-redemptrix

The extraordinary testimonies to Mary Co-redemptrix previously offered by the likes of St. Bernard, Arnold of Chartres, Pseudo-Albert, John Tauler, and Alphonsus Salmerón became the ordinary and “common opinion of theologians” (1) in the seventeenth century, which can legitimately be referred to as the “Golden Age of Marian Coredemption.”

In the 1600’s alone, references to the Immaculate Mother’s unique and active participation “with Jesus” in the Redemption number well over three hundred. Within these references are numerous explanations and defenses of the titles of Redemptrix and Co-redemptrix, coupled with learned theological defenses of the sound doctrine which the titles convey. (2)

So generous and penetrating is the theological treatment of the Mother Co-redemptrix throughout this Golden Age that its contribution lays the theological foundation for the systematic treatment of the doctrine in later centuries. Under the classic categories of Christian soteriology (theology of salvation) in which Our Lord’s Redemption is considered, that is, merit, satisfaction, sacrifice, and redemptive ransom, the Mother’s Coredemption is fundamentally treated under these categories by the theological minds and hearts of this age. (3) So many in number were they, we can offer only a sampling of the theological laud and love to Mary Co-redemptrix that this era provides. (4)

Of utmost importance to the story of Mary Co-redemptrix is its organic progression through this critical phase of the Church’s theological history, for the doctrine of Coredemption and its “theological foundations” are firmly embedded in Tradition, and will, in future centuries, receive their magisterial sanctions directly from the popes.

St. Lawrence of Brindisi († 1619), Franciscan Doctor of the Church, uses the concept of Mary’s “spiritual priesthood” (in a mode analogous to the priesthood of the laity as discussed at the Second Vatican Council) (5) to illustrate Mary’s participation in the Redemption in the category of sacrifice. Sacrifice soteriologically refers to Christ’s free immolation and offering of himself to the Eternal Father in a truly priestly action for humanity’s sins. Mary in her “spiritual priesthood,” as St. Lawrence explains, shares in the offering of the one redemptive sacrifice at Calvary with Jesus, the “Principal Priest”:

Did not Mary put her life in danger for us, when she stood by the cross of Christ truly sacrificing Him to God in spirit, as full, abundantly full of the spirit of Abraham, and offering Him in true charity for the salvation of the world? . . . The spirit of Mary was a spiritual priest, as the cross was the altar and Christ the sacrifice; although the spirit of Christ was the principal priest, the spirit of Mary was there together with the spirit of Christ; indeed it was one spirit with Him as one soul in two bodies. Hence the spirit of Mary together with the spirit of Christ performed the priestly office at the altar of the cross and offered the sacrifice of the cross for the salvation of the world to the Eternal God…. For of her, as of God to Whom she was most similar in spirit, we can truly say that she so loved the world as to give her only-begotten Son so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but will have life eternal. (6)

Mary is not a “priest” in the formal sense, since she is not ordained, and therefore cannot offer a formal sacrifice. Rather, she possesses a spiritual priesthood true of all the baptized, but in the highest possible degree due to her singular dignity. In view of her fullness of grace and her coredemptive mission with the Redeemer, it is clear that her spiritual sacrifice in subordinate participation “with Jesus” the High Priest, exceeds in spiritual fruitfulness the sacrifice of any ministerial priest, excepting only her own Son. (7)

Another Doctor of the Church and revered counter-reformational cardinal and theologian, St. Robert Bellarmine († 1621), teaches the uniqueness of the Mother’s co-operation in his metaphor of spiritual creation:

Even if Mary was not present at the creation of the material heavens, nevertheless she was present at the creation of the spiritual heavens—the Apostles; and although she was not present at the founding of the material earth, nevertheless she was present at the founding of the spiritual earth—the Church. For she alone co-operated in the mystery of the Incarnation; she alone co-operated in the mystery of the Passion, standing before the cross, and offering her Son for the salvation of the world. (8)

The Jesuit theologian, de Salazar († 1646) puts forward a theological defense of the Immaculate Virgin’s direct, immediate, and formal cooperation in Redemption. (9) De Salazar justifies the titles of Redemptrix, Reparatrix, and Mediatrix among others, and in a later work refers to the Mother as the “Co-redemptrix.” (10)

The theological concept of “ransom” refers to the “payment of a price,” and the price of Redemption is precisely the merits and satisfactions of the Redeemer offered to the Eternal Father for our salvation, freeing us from Satan’s bondage. To what degree, then, does the Mother participate in the ransom of “buying back” the human race together with Christ?

The testimony of this Golden Age gives witness to two ways in which the Immaculate One participates in the ransom obtained by her Son: firstly, that Mary paid the same price (although subordinately) which her Son paid in offering the merits and satisfaction of her Son to the Eternal Father; secondly, that Mary offered her own merits and satisfactions in union with her Son’s for man’s Redemption.

The French author, Fr. Raphael of the Discalced Augustinians († 1639), illustrates the Mother’s subordinate “servant” role in the buying back of humanity as Co-redemptrix:

Her Son shares with her and conveys to her in some way the glory of our ransom, an act which she truly did not perform, nor was able to carry out in order to satisfy the Father by the rigor of justice . . . But we can say that she cooperated in our ransom in that she gave the Redeemer flesh and blood, substance and price of our ransom. She did so just as a servant cooperated in the buying back of a slave if she lent the money to her master for the deliverance. Also, she cooperated because she willingly consented to see Him die and she generously condemned herself to the same torture . . . which rightly gives her the quality of coredemptrix of man although her Son is the principal and formal cause of our salvation. (11)

The Franciscan Mariologist, Angelo Vulpes († 1647), explains the capacity of the Co-redemptrix to pay the “death-debt” of sinners: “Mary died in imitation of her Son in order that she, in her capacity as Co-redemptrix, might with full merit pay the death-debt of others.” (12) In addition, Vulpes points out that it was God’s decree that man would be redeemed by the “united merits” of Jesus and Mary: “God decreed to redeem all men from the servitude of sin . . . through their merits (i.e., the merits of Christ and Mary) . . . He decreed the passibility of the future Christ, and likewise that of His Mother, so that she too might become the Co-redemptrix of the entire human race. (13)

The Merits of Christ and Mary

How do we understand the Catholic concept of supernatural merit, and in what dimension of this can humanity participate? Jesus Christ, through his passion and death, merited “reward” for humanity, namely our justification. (14) But human creatures may also “merit” in the sense that God has placed a supernatural value on certain human acts, and if freely performed by man, God rewards his sons and daughters with an increase of his grace and divine goodness for themselves and for others. (15) How, then, does the Immaculate Mother uniquely share in the merits of Christ for the Redemption of the world?

During this period, the specific nature of Our Lady’s merits is theologically discussed (16) for the first time since its introduction by Eadmer of Canterbury. The Spaniard, P. M. Frangipane († 1638), identifies the object of merit for the Immaculate Co-redemptrix as the same as that merited by Christ, but on the substantially different level of “de congruo” or “fittingness” compared to the “de condigno” level of “justice” merited by the divine Redeemer alone: “… Everything which Christ merited for us de condigno was merited for us de congruo by Mary…. This title, Co-redemptrix requires innocence on her part; for how could she cleanse the world from sin, if she herself were subject to sin?” (17)

The thesis that Mary merited for us de congruo that which Jesus merited for us de condigno became a common teaching of the period and was later given papal approval by St. Pius X. (18) In essence, Mary merited in the order of fittingness that which Jesus merited in the order of justice and equality between himself and the Father. (19)

The same notion of Our Lady’s merit is repeated by numerous authors during the century, for example by the Jesuit, George de Rhodes († 1661):

We must state first of all that Mary can be called Redemptrix of mankind in a certain true and proper sense, although not as primary and proper as Christ…. Mary merited de congruo through her co-passion and prayers everything which Christ merited for us de condigno through His death … She merited, first of all, that we should be liberated from all sin, both original and personal, that is, all graces which precede and cause our justification…. (20)

The Franciscan Roderick de Portillo, O.F.M. (c. 1630), also confirms that Jesus and Mary obtained the same object of merit for humanity, albeit in their respective degrees: “There is no doubt that the Blessed Virgin (at Calvary) merited the same thing which her Son merited.” (21) The contemplative author, Novati († 1648), affirms the unified meritorious offering of Jesus and Mary for human Redemption: “Just as Christ de condignomerited sufficiently for all men the remission of sins, sanctifying grace and all the other goods that follow from it … so it must be said that the Blessed Virgin de congruo merited the same things for all men.” (22) In addition, Novati re-affirms: “I say first that the Virgin, by co-suffering with Christ, did co-operate in human Redemption. I say secondly that she most greatly co-operated in the Redemption of the human race by offering the life and blood of her Son to the Eternal Father for men’s salvation…. The will of Christ and Mary was one, and there was one holocaust.” (23)

The saving action of the Redeemer results in a superabundant compensation for the sins of humanity. This compensation constitutes the theological concept of “satisfaction,” the appeasing of the guilt of humanity’s sin whereby the justice of God is satisfied, which results in the restoration of the saving communion between man and God. In this, too, the Mother shares, and thus the seventeenth century theologians voice their assent to the satisfactory participation of the Co-redemptrix. Numerous authors speak of Mary’s satisfaction in a de congruo degree at Calvary, in a manner similar though distinct from her meritorious participation. (24)

With the prophetic revelations of Venerable Mary of Agreda († 1665) contained in the Mystical City